A teenage movie character nicknamed after a mental illness is bound to fulfill the shock value of his moniker in any language. But in the spare, neo-realist Russian-language drama Schizo, the eccentric behavior of Mustafa (Olzhas Nusuppaev) mirrors the emotional hardships and bleak landscapes of the young man’s impoverished life in an unbeautiful stretch of Kazakhstan. Mustafa is pushed by his mother’s shady boyfriend to help recruit amateur fighters for an underground boxing-and-betting racket, and Kazakh director Guka Omarova employs her bare-bones but empathetic filmmaking style to capture the desperation and casual criminality of illegal bare-knuckle boxing.
Following a bout that ends in a fatality, Mustafa befriends the woman and little boy left behind by the dead boxer, and for the first time, he feels a sense of belonging. The family is one of those openhearted edge-of-nowhere units that tend to appear, conveniently, in neo-realist films set in foreign landscapes. Yet, working from a script cowritten with accomplished Siberian filmmaker Sergey Bodrov, the director creates a taut picture of a place, and a liberating moment of choice.